Politics & Society

Michèle Lamont on The Sociology of Inequality

Interview by Eve Gerber

"If we come to understand the human value and dignity of people from different backgrounds, we can do a bit to deflect inequality in our everyday interactions," says Harvard Professor and winner of the 2017 Erasmus Prize Michèle Lamont. Here, she recommends five books that illuminate the sociology of inequality.

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Michèle Lamont

Michèle Lamont is Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University. She chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-2009. She is also the recipient of the 2017 Erasmus prize for her contributions to the social sciences in Europe and the rest of the world. She is the author of many books, including How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic JudgmentMoney, Morals and Manners, and The Dignity of Working Men. Most recently, she co-authored Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel

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Your ground-breaking research into the structural sources of inequality recently won the Erasmus Prize. Please explain the nature of your work. How does sociology excavate the roots of inequality?

Sociological work is an important complement to economic approaches to inequality, which focus on the distribution of resources. Multidimensional analysis of inequality takes into consideration disparities in worth and cultural membership among classes. I have been developing a systematic analysis of stigmatization and how values are imbedded by the environment people live in.

Your book choices survey the qualitative processes that contribute to inequality. Why did you pick your first choice, Charles Tilly’s Durable Inequality?

This is a very influential book. Durable Inequality is a systematic analysis of how sociological identity strengthens inequality.

Tilly focuses on two main mechanisms. The first is opportunity hoarding, which means that in-groups attempt to reserve opportunities for themselves. For example, in the United States, typically the budget of schools in many towns is based on the wealth of the local taxpayers.

“The system of high-quality schools is set up so that the families who benefit from it are the ones who already have advantages”

In the wealthy suburbs of Boston, you have high-quality schools which transmit advantages from one generation to the next. The system is set up so that the families who benefit from it are the ones who already have advantages—that’s an example of opportunity hoarding. Tilly identifies opportunity hoarding and other social mechanisms that explain why inequality endures.

How would you explain your work to readers unfamiliar with sociology on a nitty-gritty level—for instance, the research documented in your prescient book The Dignity of Working Men?

In The Dignity of Working Men, I identified census tracks in the Parisian and New York suburbs with large numbers of working-class people. I define ‘working-class’ as low-status white collar workers, such as people who work in sales and blue-collar workers.

I interviewed randomly-selected people in their homes and elsewhere. I asked them questions designed to discover what criteria they used to evaluate others. I would systematically cull the criteria and then compared the criteria used by the majority group (white workers) with the criteria used by the most stigmatized groups in each country—North-African immigrants in France, and African-Americans in the United States.

There were clear differences in how different groups defined morality. For instance, white workers in the States emphasized the most important dimension of morality was the “disciplined self”; that is, paying your bills and working hard. African-Americans, meanwhile, stressed the “caring self,” which has to do with solidarity and sympathy for other human beings and respect for where they come from.

There were also clear differences between the two countries. In both, I asked the subjects to name their heroes. Donald Trump came up a lot in the United States, where subjects were more likely to name “material success” as a reason for considering someone a hero. In France, far fewer emphasized this. The goal isn’t to say all the French are this way and all Americans are that, but rather to analyze what cultural membership means in each context, how the worth of people are assessed, so that inequality can be challenged in both.

“Donald Trump came up a lot in the United States, where subjects were more likely to name “material success” as a reason for considering someone a hero”

I focus on problems that are similar in different institutional contexts. For instance, in my book How Professors Think, I look at evaluation in the context of higher education: How does peer review work? What kinds of criteria are most valued across disciplines—for instance, philosophy and economics versus history and anthropology? How do universities assess what research is significant?

I spoke to members of peer review panels and looked at the formal criteria that were used by universities such as originality, but also investigated various forms of diversity: ethnicity, type of institution (e.g. liberal colleges, top research universities) and geographic diversity.

You once described your second recommendation as “a magisterial demonstration of how the quantification of performance is revolutionizing our world in so many dimensions.” Tell me more about Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability.

This is a very important book. It connects the movement toward growing quantification of performance with growing inequality.

The authors take as their point of departure the publication of law school rankings by U S News and World Report. They show that once these rankings started to be published, many law schools began adjusting their programs to improve their standing in the very dimensions that were being measured. For instance, they would game who they would offer admission to first, so that they could have better statistics on admissions test scores. The authors do lot of interviews with deans and faculty to understand how the quantification of performance perverts the mission of these schools. That is fed by came from the diffusion of performance standards.

Espeland and Sauder frame the book as a contribution to our understanding of about a broader phenomenon—what social scientists call ‘the audit society.’ Individuals and institutions are increasingly quantifying performance with a lot of the perverse and unintended consequences. The movement toward the audit society has been associated with the neo-liberalism, how institutions are using market mechanism to maximize efficacy and outcomes.

You’ve been pointing out that quantitative evaluation can have perverse effects for decades.

Quantitative tools have a flattening effect. For instance, in the United States, teenagers considering college enter their grade point average and test scores into a program called Naviance. The program will suggest what kind of university they should be applying to—which ones are their reach and safety schools.

“Naviance creates the sense among teenagers that there is one objective universal hierarchy”

Naviance creates the sense among teenagers that there is one objective universal hierarchy, and it creates more competition as everyone can be ranked on a single set of standards. If this tool did not exist, it would be easier for applicants to understand that different schools have different missions, and meet the needs of different students. It’s an example of how quantification has perverse effects once institutionalized.

That leads us to college and the next title on your list, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Please tell us about the impact of campus life on inequality.

This is an ethnography of dorms by two women who teach at University of Michigan and University of California, concerning their time at another Midwestern university. While a graduate research assistant, Laura Hamilton lived in a dorm. She observed how the system created ‘tracks’ which facilitated different modes of engaging with people. These tracks were very different depending on the student’s social class. They discovered that to participate in the social rites at university, you need a lot of money—for clothes, makeup, transportation, and so on.

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Because the university is so tolerant of partying culture, serious women students are marginalized. Girls are encouraged not to take their studies seriously. While working class girls were more likely to come to schools in relationships with guys who remain in their place of origin, they return home more often. As a result, their drop-out rate is much higher. They don’t move in with their whole social network, as is more often the case for upper middle-class women. Working-class kids have less money to socialize, and as a result, they don’t develop social networks as extensive as those developed by upper-class students.

The argument of the book is that the university is oriented toward facilitating the objectives of the upper middle-class, and that student life is oriented around a path that working-class students don’t have the resources to pursue. Thus, the university is contributing to the reproduction of class inequality in the way that students experience college.

How can the findings of Armstrong and Hamilton and other sociologists who work on class can be used to reduce inequality?

Their book’s impact made clear to university administrators that parts of their institutional culture which they did not see as related to inequality, actually feed into inequality. They reveal that campus party culture not only reproduces economic inequality, but also gender inequality. Because this book won a number of top book awards and was quite widely discussed, those findings really were heard.

Their findings have many applications. For instance, at Harvard, administrators have been trying to close the single-gender ‘finals clubs’ that aren’t a formal part of the university but nevertheless play a crucial role in creating the student culture. They have encountered major resistance for reasons that have to do with gender (‘frat boy’ culture) as much as class culture, as we discovered in the hearing around the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Creating a Class by Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens is your next pick. Tell me about it.

This book is about the process by which American universities and liberal arts colleges decide who they will admit. The author (who now teaches at Stanford’s School of Education) spent a lot of time at the admissions office of an elite liberal arts college, trying to document the criteria that are used to—as the title suggests—create a class.

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As the admissions policies of Harvard are now under the microscope as part of a lawsuit charging discrimination against Asian-American applicants, this topic is particularly salient. In response to a Supreme Court decision in a case against University of Michigan from some years ago, schools were forced to revise the affirmative action policies created to assist African-Americans. After that an important decision, Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), universities redefined their criteria so that diversity in general would be valued. As a result, some students are accepted not only for their academic excellence, but also because they add to the diversity of perspectives on campus. For example, because they come from Kansas, or they’re an opera singer, or due to their ethnicity.

“Emphasis on extracurriculars can have a perverse effect”

This book is about the range of criteria that universities use to assess students now. Another book by Natasha Warikoo published since, The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, compares admission at Oxford, Brown and Harvard. In principle, Oxford does not consider extracurricular involvement during its admissions process, whereas American universities do. This has a huge impact on how American teenagers spend their time.

The emphasis on extracurriculars can have a perverse effect. Many kids spread themselves so thin across a number of activities in an effort to maximize their college chances. I have a student, Stefan Beljean, who’s writing a doctoral dissertation comparing high school students in Boston and Berlin. He shows how young Americans between the ages of thirteen and eighteen organize their lives around maximizing their potential to be admitted to a top college. These kids end up exhausted, depressed, and cynical as a result.

‘Social reproduction’ is what sociologists call the phenomenon Stevens documents, and which you just discussed, right? Can you explain how these sociological concepts illuminate the problem of inequality?

The concept of ‘social reproduction’ comes from Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most important sociologists of the last century (and with whom I studied.) It refers to the social processes and structures that transmit inequality. For instance, as we’ve discussed, universities measure and reward students according to how well they conform to middle-class lifestyles. So, evaluation that appears to be neutral is, in fact, class-based. His work was done in the French context but was imported to the United States.

“Higher education is not only about building human capital—it’s also about acquiring and consolidating class-specific cultural dispositions that contribute to opportunity hoarding and maintaining class boundaries”

This concept was particularly illuminating in the United States, where higher education was understood as promoting greater equality. It shows how the reality often belies or counteract that ideal. Higher education is not only about building human capital—it’s also about acquiring and consolidating class-specific cultural dispositions that contribute to opportunity hoarding and maintaining class boundaries.

Finally, you chose a book about post-collegiate life called Pedigree. Please tell me about it.

This is a book by Lauren Rivera, one of my former advisees. It has been recognized as quite important. She analyzed the culture of the elite employers, focusing on law firms, investment banks and management consultancies. She sat in on job interviews and the deliberative process of elite firms assessing applicants. Her argument is that class shapes the selection process.

She shows that employers value what they called ‘the comfort factor,’ which is often described as ‘the airport test.’ They ask, ‘If you are on a trip with this applicant and got stuck at an airport, would you and the applicant have anything to talk about?’

This test influences the criteria that are used in the hiring process. Employers hire job seekers who participate in similar activities, maybe skiing in Aspen or snorkeling in Thailand. These activities are very class-dependent; they require a lot of resources. Pedigree reveals yet another context in which people who are not upper middle-class are penalized.

Sounds like Rivera is referring to the concept of cultural capital, which was the focus of your book, Money, Morals and Manners. Can you explain the concept of cultural capital in the context of your book?

Familiarity with high culture is what we call ‘cultural capital.’ The theory of Bourdieu is that cultural capital sustains networks that then influence who gets access to what. If, as a middle-class kid, your family dragged you to the museum on Sunday, you’re able to talk about the difference between the Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists. This is a form of cultural capital that enables the middle-class kid to access networks that are in turn less accessible to working-class kids. It confers a sense of cultural ease that is very useful and valued in a wide range of situations. This ease is central to expressing and demonstrating upper middle-class identity.

In his original work, Bourdieu focused on class reproduction and high culture. In my empirical work, particularly in my book Money, Morals and Manners, I showed that Americans have a broader and more tolerant understanding of culture, but still engage in symbolic exclusion. For instance, upper middle-class Americans value all kinds of musical genres. But, as the famous paper “Anything But Heavy Metal” by Bethany Bryson showed, musical dislikes also define class. We tend to dislike most the musical genres associated with the groups most distant from us socially. For the white upper-middle class, that’s heavy metal (a favorite of the working-class.)

How can the issue of privilege reproduction be broached without fanning the flames of populism?

My hope as a researcher is that people will become attuned to the role class plays in perpetuating inequality and that they will embrace more plural criteria for evaluation. If we base evaluation on narrow criteria of cultural sophistication we reproduce privilege.

“If we base evaluation on narrow criteria of cultural sophistication we reproduce privilege.”

If we come to understand the human value and dignity of people from different backgrounds, we can do a bit to deflect inequality in our everyday interactions, while at the same time addressing criticisms of populism. When the white working-class reject the elite, they register keen awareness that they are at the bottom of the cultural pecking order. By becoming more conscious of how their behavior feeds class resentment, the upper middle-class may be able one day to do less to fan the flames of populism.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Michèle Lamont

Michèle Lamont is Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University. She chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-2009. She is also the recipient of the 2017 Erasmus prize for her contributions to the social sciences in Europe and the rest of the world. She is the author of many books, including How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic JudgmentMoney, Morals and Manners, and The Dignity of Working Men. Most recently, she co-authored Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel